A familiar cast featuring Lee Kang-Sheng and Tien Miao among others returns for another Tsai Ming-Liang experience of storytelling about modern Taiwan in What Time is it There? After an opening few scenes in which Hsiao Kang’s (Lee Kang-Sheng) father apparently passes away, something interesting occurs one day as he is selling watches on the streets of Taipei. A young woman named Shiang-chyi(actress Shiang-chyi Chen) approaches him in search of a dual time watch for her trip to Paris. After much pleading on her behalf, she succeeds in convincing him to sell off the one he owns despite its sentimental value. The girl must have had quite an impression on the young lad, for from that point onward, and for the remainder of the film, Hsiao Kang will spend of his efforts on changing the time on the clocks around Taipei in accordance with Parisian time. All the while his mother will persistently perform little acts and rituals around the home in the hopes that her late husband will return, reincarnated in nonhuman form.
Watching Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang’s film What Time is it There? raised two thoughts to my mind. The first is that Tsai is a quintessential ‘auteur’ filmmaker, a director who unquestionably brings his own voice to the art of movie making. Anybody reading this who frowns on those who support the auteur theory need only watch movies like Vivre L’Amour, The River and What Time is it There? There is something very distinct about Tsai’s camera work, his choice of actors and the kind of stories he tells. There is even a commonality of the themes and tones of those stories. This leads me to the second thought that occupied my mind while watching this movie: his movies really do look alike after a while. Some directors are very much auteurs but create different worlds whenever they make a different film. Tsai seems to make different chapters all related to the same world, with the same textures and while the tones of these chapters are not identical, they are to me very similar. Long scenes, with cameras resting at great lengths on actors while they smoke, eat, walk, lie on beds, look into the distant as they ponder on their feelings and whatever inner turmoil may be disrupting them. It’s not a bad style, far from it in fact, only that after watching a third Tsai film…it begins to feel like a lot of the same. I’m well aware that Tsai has made other movies than the three I have watched, and I shall undoubtedly discover the others at some point in the future, but for the moment, I feel as if I’ve digested a sufficient dose of his style. The writer director has a fascination with the modern Taiwanese society, how that modernity has moulded the society he knows, what inner family relationships are like today, what it’s like to be a young adult, professional or not, in this society, and so on. Hey, they guy is from Taiwan after all and more power to him if he has a lot to say about his home country. I won’t necessarily tell him to do otherwise, but I am starting to wonder what this man’s range as a director is like. Maybe he doesn’t need great range if his interest rests primarily in one major idea, albeit with several possible stories that may be told within that major idea. In fact, there were several moments in What Time is it There? that immediately reminded of scenes from both The River and Vivre L’Amour. The opening scene featuring Hsiao Kang’s father (who also played the father in The River) smoking a cigarette at a table, Shiang chyi’s sad stare at the very end of the film, Shiang chyi’s pseudo lesbian night with a Hong Kong woman who helped earlier in the day, the petty bickering between Hsaio Kang and his mother at the dinner table, Hsiao Kang’s habit of peeing in plastic bags or bottles at night, etc. I felt as if I was playing a game of contrast and compare with the other films I had seen almost more than I was watching a unique piece of cinema. In a strange sense, even though I have admiration for what Tsai does as a filmmaker and still thoroughly enjoyed this film, I still feel like I’m getting diminishing returns with every new movie I watch. None of the three I’ve seen have been bad, on the contrary, they have all been good, but I can’t help but feel that they have all felt pretty much the same. There are some staunch Tsai Ming-Liang supporters out there, I even know some over at Filmspotting, so if any of you happen to be reading this, I hope I’m not giving a particularly negative mood to this review. I’m still recommending the movie. I can’t imagine anybody who has seen a Tsai film before not enjoying this one.
That isn’t to say this movie doesn’t have its moments. The final scene, which reserves something pretty special for the viewer, is expertly crafted, and many of the Shiang-chyi scenes as she visits some atypical Paris surroundings or spends late nights in her hotel room, were very captivating. A few scenes involving Hsiao Kang and clocks, whether because he was changing the position of the arms or because he was steeling them (I’m referring to the scene at the cinema) were quite funny and entertaining. Those involving his mother performing what nonreligious people would consider to be ‘silly’ acts based on faith and superstition were less compelling. The to and fro snickering between her and Hsio Kang wasn’t that interesting and, based on what I just wrote about in the above paragraph, was too reminiscent of certain scenes from The River. Of the three Tsai films I have watched, I’d argue this one has the most attractive colour palette. There is something very rich in the tones and texture of the scenes in this film. This quality was present in The River but really comes out to shine here. The shadow and lighting are exquisitely managed to set the mood of the movie, particularly for the indoor sequences. I think many of the scenes occurring in Hsiao Kang home, while they don’t strike me as memorable for the dialogue between the character and his mother, were some of the most pleasing to the eye for their aesthetic qualities. And more to the point of Hsio Kang’s domestic scenes and their relation to those involving Shiang-chyi Chen in Paris, I found the latter ones more interesting than the former. I think Lee Shang-Keng is an interesting and very good actor, and he does an admirable job in this film, but Shiang-chyi Chen was the most interesting player overall. Her decision to visit Paris alone despite not speaking any French, thus spending most of her time in Paris feeling very alone, made for some curiously enjoyable moments. There is something very attractive about her aura as an actress, in addition to the obvious fact that she’s rather cute.
What Time is it There? has some great moments, but overall I will limit myself to saying that it is a good film, a few beats shy from being great. Perhaps had I seen this Tsai movie first instead of Vivre L’Amour my feelings would be different, or maybe if this film had been one of Tsai’s earlier efforts and not one of his more recent ones. On its own, there isn’t a whole lot to fault the film for, except for some of the mother/son scenes and other moments where the camera lingers a bit too long characters (much like one of my complaints for The River, go figure). Having said that, the movie looks great, features strong performances and goes for something interesting in the late stages as events in Taipei and Paris seem to be connected for some unknown reason. I enjoy this writer director’s work, but I may just be taking a breather from his filmmography for the next little bit.